Everyone’s bent out of shape about Macmillan’s change of terms for the supply of ebooks to libraries. Just for the record, this is more or less what we are talking about, as reported by Publishers Weekly: “Under the publisher’s new digital terms of sale for libraries, ‘library systems’ will be now be allowed to purchase a single — that is, one — perpetual access e-book during the first eight weeks of publication for each new Macmillan release, at half price ($30). Additional copies will then be available at full price (generally $60 for new releases) after the eight-week window has passed. All other terms remain the same: e-book licenses will continue to be metered for two years or 52 lends, whichever comes first, on a one copy/one user model.”

The commentariat is out in force on this, expressing their disgust at Macmillan’s daring to restrict access to their books. Scrivener’s Error maintains that John Sargent of Macmillan is simply lying. The Digital Reader accuses him of failure to adapt to the market.

But bear in mind that libraries (and ebook readers) do not buy ebooks from publishers, they merely license access to them. This piece from Ingram Content Group a few years back explains the situation from the librarian’s point of view. The basic problem is that if you sell an ebook to a library (or theoretically to anyone) that’s likely to be the only copy you’ll ever sell. If any number of library patrons can look at the file, nobody else needs to make the investment in purchasing their own copy. This needless to say is not a good business model.

Publishers are in business to sell books. According to The Digital Reader Macmillan’s John Sargent “can’t figure out how to adapt to the market and sell what customers want, so he has decided to arbitrarily impose restrictions to force his customers to buy what he wants to sell.” Quite apart from the fact that what we are actually talking about here is licensing books not selling them, one should point out that controlling the market in this sort of way is not altogether stupid. Publishers have been doing it for generations: in a pre-digital world, if we didn’t choose to reprint a book, you couldn’t actually buy it. If we opt not to publish this or that book, or put a high price on it, then access to that work is indeed restricted. We are talking about a business, not a constitutional right to easy access to everything ever written. Nobody, surely, can disagree that the primary moment for selling a book is in the early days, when people are (we hope) excited to get at it. If an ebook is widely available free of charge all across the country one might expect the possibility of selling more copies would be reduced.* That may well be the way lots of customers want it to be (they probably also want their books to be free), but “wanting” isn’t enough. I may want not to have to wear my puffer jacket in January but the government cannot change the seasons — though many politicians seem hell-bent on ignoring climate change. Now of course publishers’ terms are not as resistant to change as the climate, but what is, is the requirement that any business has to make money in order to stay in business. You may not think Macmillan’s tactic is likely to lead to maximizing sales, but you cannot deny their right to try.

It shouldn’t need saying, but obviously does, that publishers instinctively favor easy access to books. If publishers didn’t want to make books available to people they wouldn’t be publishers. Critics of Sargent like to make their complaint on that basis: and that basis is nonsense. The real problem, which they choose to ignore, is that if a publisher gives away all their books they won’t be publishing for very long. Now it’s possible to disagree with the detail of Macmillan’s terms: but it’s just burying your head in the sand to pretend that the big issue is freedom of access to books. The issue is under what terms that access should be granted, and any deal has to allow for a bit of profit to the publisher, so that they can continue publishing. Readers understandably tend to focus on the book they want to read right now. But that, unfortunately for the frustrated ebook borrower, is not the most important issue. The main issue is all those future books which require that the publisher stay in business and see some incentive to keep going. (Yes, yes, I know true objectors will say that self publishing is the royal road to the future. Don’t agree. Both will coexist.)


* Shouldering my invisible sentimental air-violin, let me say that this means authors make nothing too.